Unlike Controlled Fires, Goats Never Get ‘Out of Hand'

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Smarter than the average lawn-mower, more manageable than a properly controlled fire and pleasantly bucolic, goats are fast becoming the talk of the grass-fire prevention world.

Berkeley and East Bay fire officials are using goats-provided by a company called Goats R Us-to munch on the abundance of drying grass and foliage, which could start a flash fire.

"The goats are quick, thorough, quiet. They work around the clock, and the work is pretty cheap," says Berkeley Assistant Fire Chief David Orth.

The goat method is vastly superior to conventional techniques of clearing away dried foliage. They can eat away a path of grass about an acre thick through large properties, such as city parks, without the dangers that sometimes arise from controlled burns.

"Burning is a very effective method, but hard to control.

The goats don't get out of control too often," Orth says. "There have been no instances of goats stampeding, whereas a fire can easily get out of hand."

Employees working in the Berkeley Hills are also enjoying the change.

"It's nicer than controlled burns. The smoke got in our eyes-it was really unpleasant," says Judith Jones, human resources manager of UC Berkeley's Space Science Laboratory.

Ralph Anderson, the executive officer of the lab, says he enjoys watching the goats work.

"They do a fine job. They're quiet. You don't even know they're here most of the time," he says.

"People like watching them work."

Fire officials and neighbors have nothing but constant praise for the apparently diligent goats.

They agree the goats are ideal workers, spending hours eating grass, but leaving trees and large shrubbery alone. The goats only stop working in the heat of the day, when they usually lie down in the shade for an hour or so.

Shepherds on hand tend to the goats, making sure the goats keep inside the electric fences, which are designed mainly to keep out predators, such as dogs.

Orth says the goats rarely cause as much damage to property as a machine would.

"Nothing will do the job as fast and effectively as the goats. No machines will go that distance without causing damage," Orth says.

And they are cheap, too, costing $500 an acre. Clearing brush by hand costs a "couple thousand dollars," Orth says.

The goats are controlled by a shepherd who is on duty 24 hours a day. When a site is assigned to a shepherd and a trip of goats, the shepherd brings a trailer and makes himself at home.

Occasionally the goats will overgraze, stripping bark off of trees. If this happens, the goats will be replaced with sheep, Orth says.

"We have had rotations done where they bring in sheep, which are more discriminating in taste and leave a lot of plants behind, which holds soil better," Orth says. "This is especially good if we're expecting a lot of rain."

The season in which the goats graze is relatively short. Because of weather, the goats only graze in summer months, Orth says.

"The beginning of May, depending on weather, is when they usually start grazing," Orth says. "The end time varies-they can go all the way into August, but usually they're only there during May, June (and) a little into July."

The grass tends to become straw-like, and shepherds must bring in alfalfa to complete the goats' diets.

Once the area is completely exhausted of its edible resources, the goats are moved to a ranch in Orinda.

The goats are eventually retired and moved to a ranch north of Sonoma, where they can graze freely.


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